HOUSTON — Kelly Johnson said Evan Longoria and ex-teammate Scott Rolen are the two best defensive third basemen he has seen play.
So Johnson, 31, knows he has had big shoes to fill for the Rays in stepping in for Longoria while Longoria has dealt with his painful plantar fasciitis in his right foot over the past few weeks.
But considering Johnson, an eight-year veteran, made his first big-league start at third June 13, he has been very impressive, manager Joe Maddon said.
"I've seen him at a lot of different positions. (Third) might be his best spot," Maddon said Thursday. "He's played really, really well. I'm telling you. He looks very natural."
It is another example of Johnson embracing the Rays challenging his versatility. Having played mostly second base during his previous seven seasons, Johnson also has made 38 starts in leftfield, where he hadn't played since his rookie season. He has made one start at first, which he said is the toughest spot. But having been drafted as a shortstop and spent a lot of time at third as a kid, Johnson said the left side of the field is very familiar.
"I have a little more confidence," said Johnson, who has made two errors this year, both while in left. "I don't know that I'll ever really get comfortable (at third). The ball is coming at you pretty hot. You've got to have your glove ready and be prepared. It's kind of a crazy position. It's definitely scary."
Johnson started at third for the sixth time in seven games Thursday in a 7-5, 11-inning win over the Astros and likely will get more action there during the upcoming 10-game homestand because Longoria isn't sure when he'll be able to resume playing defense.
Johnson has made some great plays, including diving to his left to start a double play against the Tigers and charging a slow roller Wednesday against the Astros and making a barehanded throw to first.
"It's a different challenge for me, but it's been kind of cool," Johnson said. "Just good to be able to give (the Rays) the option to put me in."
STEPPING UP: RHP Chris Archer was encouraged with his progress in Thursday's six-inning start, saying it was the first time since he has been up with the Rays that he was comfortable with all three of his pitches. "All things were clicking," he said. Maddon said "everything was better," especially Archer's strike throwing. "If he missed, he didn't miss big," Maddon said. "And he was able to come back and throw strikes kind of like when he wanted to."
PEN NOTES: Maddon lauded RHP Kyle Farnsworth and RHP Jamey Wright for pitching a combined 21/3 scoreless innings Thursday in "high-leverage" moments and keeping the score tied late. Maddon said LHP Alex Torres (18 pitches) was pulled after one inning so he could be available tonight against the White Sox for his first back-to-back duty.
PITCHING IN: After going 5-1 in June, tying a club record for wins in a month, RHP Jeremy Hellickson said he hopes to keep it up — and the ball down — in tonight's start. "I feel that I've been able to get ahead with all three of my pitches, and I wasn't able to do that earlier in the year," he said. "It just makes the at-bats a little bit easier, and the confidence is a little bit higher now, too."
LONGO LEGS: Maddon said Longoria serving as DH for three straight games probably means he's not far off from returning to the field. Though with the next 10 games on Tropicana Field's turf, Longoria likely will get his share of time at DH.
MISCELLANY: 1B James Loney extended his hitting streak to 15 games with a single in the fourth, tying his career high set in 2008. … CF Desmond Jennings had three hits and hit .444 (8-for-18) with six runs and five RBIs in the four-game Astros series.